Commentary

Dash of ballots, feuding and unbeatens

Originally Published: September 22, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (annual Pete Carroll [1] egg-laying explanation sold separately -- and unconvincingly):

Poll Vaulting

The Dash sent in the weekly ESPN.com power rankings with Miami (2) ranked No. 1. This was not caused by drinking turpentine while filling out the Top 25, or by losing a bet with Melvin Bratton. It was caused by using results-based appraisals instead of being influenced by August guesswork or rigid adherence to a slot-voting mentality.

[+] EnlargeMiami
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesThe Dash thinks the Hurricanes deserve to be No. 1.
The Dash went with the Hurricanes because they've done the best work to date in this young season, beating two ranked opponents. The Dash ranked Alabama (3) No. 2, largely on the basis of beating Virginia Tech on a neutral field.

Florida (4), the unanimous No. 1 in the USA Today coaches' poll and strong No. 1 in the AP poll, is No. 3 with The Dash. Texas (5) is second in both polls but No. 5 here.

Those who feel the need to scream, please do so now. Please rejoin the column when your anger has subsided. Remember, the ESPN.com power rankings truly are for entertainment purposes only.

Those less outraged need to check out the AP ballots of two relative mavericks, Doug Lesmerises (6) of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Jon Wilner (7) of the San Jose Mercury News. Their weekly ballots -- and all the ballots in the laudably transparent AP poll -- can be viewed here.

(The coaches' ballots -- which actually count for something -- are kept in a booby-trapped, underground vault surrounded by attack dogs and monitored by rifle-toting graduate assistants who keep cyanide pills handy if ever forced to reveal the vault's location. Or so The Dash has been told.)

The Dash is not in lockstep agreement with the two sports writers. But The Dash respects their willingness to step outside the herd and vote on something more than preseason expectations.

"What people think in August [when filling out preseason Top 25s] is at least partly based on what Phil Steele and Athlon thought in April [when their preview magazines are written]," Lesmerises said. "A multi-gazillion-dollar industry based on people putting 15 minutes into a poll that is based on a magazine that did its rankings in April is not a good system."

It should be noted that, unlike some human voters, both writers put a lot more than 15 minutes into their ballots on a weekly basis. Wilner said he works for hours on his Top 25. Lesmerises said he usually does three or four drafts before sending in the final version.

This week both Lesmerises and Wilner rank Alabama No. 1 and Miami No. 2.

Lesmerises has Houston No. 3 and Cincinnati No. 4, while Wilner goes with Texas third and LSU fourth.

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyShould Tim Tebow and the Gators be No. 5?

You and Urban Meyer might both be wondering where a certain orange-helmeted team fits in. Both have the Gators a heretical fifth.

Lesmerises has Texas lower than any other AP voter at seventh. Among his other against-the-grain rankings: Penn State 15th, Ohio State 22nd, Mississippi 24th and USC 25th.

"I cover Ohio State," Lesmerises said. "I can't pretend to be an expert on every team in the country. Because of my ignorance of the college scene as a whole, I fall back on results.

"I'm trying to treat every team as Team X, where it doesn't matter where you were ranked in the preseason and it doesn't matter what conference you're in and it doesn't matter what your record was last year. What matters are results, results, results. But I'm not a computer, so 10 to 20 percent of my voting tends to take in my perception of how good a team is."

Wilner has Virginia Tech sixth. Houston is seventh. Oklahoma State is 11th. And Penn State is 21st.

"Every August, the AP sends out a list of voting guidelines," Wilner said. "The No. 1 guideline is to base your ballots on results. They also say, 'Don't be afraid to make radical changes week to week.' They want you to shake it up.

"I try to mix results and common sense."

To Wilner, Lesmerises and three other AP voters, Florida does not deserve its current ironclad place atop the rankings.

"Not when other teams have good results," said Wilner, who stresses that his rankings are not predictive but reactive. "Florida beat Tennessee, but I don't think Tennessee is that good -- unless UCLA is really good, and I don't think that's the case, either."

And both writers are amazed to find Houston ranked lower than Oklahoma State. Despite a double-digit victory in Stillwater, the 2-0 Cougars are one spot below the 2-1 Cowboys in the AP poll and seven spots lower in the coaches' poll.

Because of their willingness to vote outside the mainstream, both writers have become accustomed to scrutiny. And they welcome it.

Said Lesmerises: "I have to be able to defend every single spot on my ballot."

The Dash will defend this week's ballot as well. But first let The Dash go on record as saying Florida is still the pick to win the national title -- the Gators just don't deserve to be No. 1 right now.

If You Thought The Postgame Handshake Marked The End Of Hostilities …

… Then you're dumber than Smokey the bluetick hound. The hissing will continue between Florida coach Urban Meyer (8) and Tennessee provocateur Lane Kiffin (9). Presumably until Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive has their mouths stapled shut.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin and Urban Meyer
AP Photo/John RaouxLane Kiffin and Urban Meyer shook hands on Saturday, but resumed their verbal sparring on Sunday and Monday.

After his team failed to annihilate the 30-point underdog Volunteers on Saturday, winning by a mere 10, Meyer enumerated a few health issues. They included at least three key players saddled with the flu: running back Jeff Demps (just four carries and six touches overall), tight end Aaron Hernandez (four catches for just 26 yards) and defensive end Jermaine Cunningham (one assisted tackle).

On Sunday, presumably after hearing as much as he could stomach about Tennessee's moral victory, Meyer fired this shot to The New York Times about Kiffin's hyper-conservative offense in the fourth quarter: "It was unbelievable. They were taking their time snapping the ball when they could go win the game. There was no two-minute drill."

Monday after practice, Kiffin returned serve.

Asked about Meyer's insinuation that Tennessee abandoned the Herman Edwards credo ("You PLAY to WIN the game!"), he responded thusly, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press:

"I'd say this. This offseason, the commissioner made a big deal about a renewal of vows, and what we're supposed to say about other teams, other coaches and other players. Obviously, Urban feels he doesn't need to follow that. We won't say anything else."

[+] EnlargeJessica Lowndes
Joe Kohen/WireImageDashette Jessica Lowndes thinks the Kiffin-Meyer exchanges are funnier than a 90210 script.

Then, of course, he said something else. It came in response to a question about whether his team, like Florida, had any flu concerns.

"I don't know," Kiffin said. "I guess we'll wait and see, and after we're not excited about our performance, we'll tell you everybody was sick."

Choose which is more amusing:

• Kingpin Meyer being ruffled enough after the victory to take a shot at a guy who has never won an SEC game.

• Kiffin and his 1-2 college career record being emboldened enough to keep taking shots at a guy with two national championships.

OK, you don't have to choose. Plenty of reason to chuckle at them both.

Next up: Kiffin tells recruits that Meyer has a taste for human flesh. Meyer tells recruits that Kiffin performs animal sacrifices at midnight in Neyland Stadium. Then both deny having any hard feelings for each other to the media.

Presumably they can agree on one thing: Dashette Jessica Lowndes (10) is first-team All-Tailgate.

Looking For A Few Good (Heis)Men

When this season began, the nationwide expectation was that last year's Heisman Trophy finalists -- Sam Bradford (11) of Oklahoma, Colt McCoy (12) of Texas and Tim Tebow (13) of Florida -- would continue toying with opposing defenses while amassing ungodly statistics.

Actually, no. The expectation was that, as three-year starters on powerful teams, they'd somehow take it up a notch and produce even more shock and awe.

Which has not happened. At times it's been closer to schlock and ouch.

Why? Because stuff happens.

Stuff like injuries. You never know when you're going to take an awkwardly hard fall under the weight of a blitzing linebacker, like Bradford did two quarters into the season.

[+] EnlargeColt McCoy
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesColt McCoy hasn't produced gaudy 2008 numbers -- at least not yet.

Stuff like receivers going pro. Juaquin Iglesias at Oklahoma, Quan Cosby at Texas and Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy at Florida -- they combined for 264 catches, 3,572 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2008, which helped their quarterbacks look good.

Offensive linemen make their quarterbacks look good, too. The Sooners had to replace four-fifths of their 2008 line.

And so do offensive coordinators. Tebow is in his first season without Dan Mullen, now the head coach at Mississippi State.

Bradford has missed two games and could be out awhile longer; no telling when he's again 100 percent. McCoy already has thrown half as many interceptions this year (four) as last (eight). And he's more than eight percentage points less accurate than last season (76.7 percent then, 68.2 percent now).

As for Tebow? It should be noted that he did not dazzle early last season and wound up in New York come December. And beyond that, numbers don't do him justice anyway. Tebow's ability to make spectacular plays in key situations against an excellent Tennessee defense spoke far louder than his 76 yards rushing and 115 passing.

But given the modest starts from the big three QBs, auditions are open for other players to crash what looked like a closed Heisman party.

You're Only As Good As Your Injury Report

Rarely, if ever, can The Dash recall a season with so many high-profile, high-impact injuries on highly ranked teams so soon. The biggest names on the list:

Sam Bradford, Oklahoma quarterback. Injured body part: shoulder. Impact: played a significant part in Oklahoma's loss to BYU, which jeopardized high national championship hopes. Missed time: two games. Return: unknown. He did some limited throwing in practice Monday, and the Sooners have an open week before traveling to Miami Oct. 3 for a potentially huge game.

Jermaine Gresham (14), Oklahoma tight end. Injured body part: knee. Impact: also played a major part in Sooners' loss to BYU. Missed time: entire season. Return: will not. Losing what The Dash thinks is the most talented tight end in college football for the year is a major blow.

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesUSC didn't pass its Washington test with QB Matt Barkley on the sideline.

Matt Barkley (15), USC quarterback. Injured body part: shoulder. Impact: huge effect on the national title aspirations of the Trojans, who looked lost offensively at Washington with backup Aaron Corp. (Who, it appears, got precious little moral support from his coaches. Corp told the Los Angeles Times after the loss that Carroll & Co. never told him he was the starter.) Return: unknown, but Barkley took turns with Corp running the first-team offense Monday. Clearly, the sooner the better for the Trojans, who visit California Oct. 3 in a key Pac-10 game.

Taylor Mays (16), USC safety. Injured body part: knee. Impact: another major blow to USC, losing its best player. Like Barkley, Mays played through the injury against Ohio State but couldn't go the following weekend. Return: unknown. Mays did some light running Monday but sat out most of the practice.

D.J. Harper (17), Boise State running back. Injured body part: knee. Impact: a potential big loss for a team harboring long-shot national championship hopes -- and more realistic BCS bowl hopes. Return: likely will not play again this season. That removes the Broncos' leading rusher in a two-tailback rotation with Jeremy Avery. Boise will move former running back Doug Martin back to offense after playing nickelback this season.

Matt Grothe (18), South Florida quarterback. Injured body part: knee. Impact: massive for a 3-0 team hoping to compete for the Big East title. As the hub of the Bulls' offense since his freshman season, in his career, Grothe has thrown for 8,669 yards and 52 touchdowns and rushed for 2,206 yards and 23 touchdowns. Return: nope.

Michael Floyd (19), Notre Dame wide receiver. Injured body part: collarbone. Impact: significant deletion from the top passing offense in the nation, and a potential blow to the security of on-the-griddle coach Charlie Weis. Return: not during the regular season, according to Weis. The injury to Floyd increases the importance of fellow wideout Golden Tate, who nearly incurred his own injury after scoring what turned out to be the winning touchdown Saturday against Michigan State.

Tate got his feet down in the end zone and then leaped into the embrace of the nearby marching band … the Michigan State marching band.

"I thought the people were going to catch me, but I forgot that was Michigan State's band," Tate said. "And, like, I jumped up and they scattered real quick and there was the ground hitting me hard."

Better than impaling himself on an enemy clarinet, if one of the band members had stood his/her ground.

Wretched Rites Of Autumn

Someone put it best in a tweet to The Dash on Saturday night: You can always count on Ohio State (20) to lose a big game and USC (21) to lose a small one.

The Buckeyes upheld their end of the fall-down bargain Sept. 12. USC plotzed on cue Saturday, continuing the most bizarre trend in college football.

Since the start of the 2006 season, the Trojans' record against ranked opponents is 14-1 (.933 winning percentage). Their record against unranked opponents is 22-5 (.815 winning percentage). That's completely backward and points to chronic motivational problems when the opponent isn't a glam team.

As The Dash pointed out last week, this was the classic trap game.

And danged if the Trojans didn't walk straight into it.

The Dash suspects that after a week of warnings about a letdown, USC went in psyched up -- then flatlined after taking a 10-0 lead, thinking it had the game won. That was probably a shallow emotional wellspring after the battle with Ohio State, and it went dry quickly. An early two-score lead can boomerang on a team in a hurry -- just ask Troy (up 14-0 to down 31-14 vs. Bowling Green), San Diego State (up 14-3 then down 33-14 vs. UCLA) and California (up 14-0 on Minnesota, then tied at 21 before pulling away in the fourth quarter).

Unbeaten, Unranked, Unloved

There are 13 teams that have yet to lose but are outside the AP Top 25. The Dash appraises which are contenders and which are pretenders.

Colorado State (22). Record: 3-0, with victories over Colorado, Weber State and Nevada. Sagarin ranking: 62. When the first loss will come: Saturday at BYU. Verdict: Pretender. The Rams have come a long way in a hurry under second-year coach Steve Fairchild, but quarterback Grant Stucker is limited and the overall talent level still trails the Mountain West big three of TCU, BYU and Utah.

Southern Mississippi (23). Record: 3-0, with victories over Alcorn State, Central Florida and Virginia. Sagarin ranking: 54. When the first loss will come: Saturday at Kansas. Verdict: Contender in Conference USA, not elsewhere. The Golden Eagles are much more potent offensively under second-year coach Larry Fedora and feature an underrated gem of a running back in Damion Fletcher. But if Southern Miss can give up 312 passing yards to Virginia's scatter-armed Jameel Sewell, they might give up 1,000 to Kansas' Todd Reesing and Houston's Case Keenum.

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
AP photo/L.G. PattersonBlaine Gabbert and Mizzou are off to a 3-0 start.

Missouri (24). Record: 3-0, with victories over Illinois, Bowling Green and Furman. Sagarin ranking: 26th. When the first loss will come: Oct. 17 at Oklahoma State. Verdict: Contender. Mizzou has sent a message that this will not be a painful rebuilding year after losing Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman and William Moore. If lavishly talented sophomore quarterback Blaine Gabbert continues to play well (zero interceptions in his first 104 collegiate passes), the Tigers might win the Big 12 North for a third straight season.

Texas A&M (25). Record: 2-0, with victories over New Mexico and Utah State. Sagarin ranking: 71. When the first loss will come: Oct. 3 against Arkansas. Verdict: Pretender. Not much pass defense against scant competition so far. How will the Aggies slow down all those quarterbacks in the Big 12 South?

Indiana (26). Record: 3-0, with victories over Eastern Kentucky, Western Michigan and Akron. Sagarin ranking: 69. When the first loss will come: Saturday at Michigan. Verdict: Pretender. The Hoosiers flexed a little at Akron on Saturday, scoring 28 unanswered points during one stretch. But that was Akron. And Indiana struggled to beat its other two opponents.

Iowa (27). Record: 3-0, with victories over Northern Iowa, Iowa State and Arizona. Sagarin ranking: 7. When the first loss will come: Saturday at Penn State. Verdict: Contender. After surviving a near-death experience against FCS Northern Iowa in the opener, the Hawkeyes have gotten better every week. They've overcome the season-ending injury to starting running back Jewel Hampton with a dominating defense and won't be overmatched in Happy Valley this weekend.

Wisconsin (28). Record: 3-0, with victories over Northern Illinois, Fresno State and Wofford. Sagarin ranking: 16. When the first loss will come: When the Badgers finally hit the road for the first time, visiting Minnesota Oct. 3. Verdict: More pretender than contender. After benefiting from an unimposing schedule, Wisconsin still has much to prove.

South Florida (29). Record: 3-0, with victories over Wofford, Western Kentucky and Charleston Southern. Sagarin ranking: 41. When the first loss will come: Saturday at Florida State. Verdict: Pretender. The Bulls had proved nothing against an embarrassing schedule -- and that was with Grothe. Without him it could get ugly.

Pittsburgh (30). Record: 3-0, with victories over Youngstown State, Buffalo and Navy. Sagarin ranking: 27. When the first loss will come: Oct. 2 at Louisville. Verdict: Contender for second-best in the Big East behind Cincinnati. The Panthers have taken care of business three weeks in a row, including handling a Navy team last week that took Ohio State to the wire. Quarterback Bill Stull has been significantly improved so far and freshman running back Dion Lewis has established himself as a suitable successor to LeSean McCoy. But Pitt probably isn't good enough to avoid dropping a couple of league games on the road.

[+] EnlargeChris Todd
Paul Abell/US PresswireChris Todd has sparked the Tigers to a fast start.

Kentucky (31). Record: 2-0, with victories over Miami (Ohio) and Louisville. Sagarin ranking: 50. When the first loss will come: Saturday at home against Florida. Verdict: Pretender. The Wildcats are staring at a four-game losing streak with Florida, Alabama, at South Carolina and at Auburn up next.

Auburn (32). Record: 3-0, with victories over Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State and West Virginia. Sagarin ranking: 15. When the first loss will come: Either Oct. 3 at Tennessee or Oct. 10 at Arkansas. Verdict: Contender. The Tigers are scoring in gushes under new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and getting solid quarterback play from Chris Todd, who was derided by many Auburn fans last year as an overmatched SEC QB put in a bad position by former coordinator Tony Franklin. The Dash still can't believe there's room for a fourth SEC West power team, but Auburn is well ahead of expectations right now.

Arizona State (33). Record: 2-0, with victories over Idaho State and Louisiana-Monroe. Sagarin ranking: 67. When the first loss will come: Saturday at Georgia. Verdict: Pretender. The Sun Devils have succeeded only in mauling bad teams so far, and they're running out of that kind of opponents on the schedule.

UCLA (34) Record: 3-0, with victories over San Diego State, Tennessee and Kansas State. Sagarin ranking: 28. When they'll lose: Oct. 3 at Stanford. Verdict: Pretender. The Bruins are better than last year -- probably solid enough to earn a bowl bid -- but not quite ready to compete for the Pac-10 title.

League Of The Week

The Dash salutes the Big East (35), which had five underdog teams in nonconference games Saturday and won three of them. Cincinnati scored a major victory at Oregon State, Connecticut upset Baylor in Waco and Syracuse outlasted Northwestern. It didn't hurt that the other two teams in big games -- Louisville at Kentucky and West Virginia at Auburn -- were in the game into the final minutes.

Now the big-six league that is always being belittled gets several opportunities to do it again. Rutgers visits Maryland, Pitt is at NC State, South Florida is at Florida State, Cincinnati hosts Fresno State and Louisville travels to face Utah. A winning record in those five games would further solidify the league's status in something of a rebuilding year.

Coach Who Earned His Comp Car This Week

Washington's Steve Sarkisian (36), who has defined the "change the culture" cliché in his first season in Seattle. From 0-12 in 2008 to the Top 25 three games into 2009, it's been a rocket ride back to respectability.

Coach Who Should Take The Bus To Work

Baylor's Art Briles (37). With the Bears' home loss to UConn, their streak of losing games when they've trailed at halftime has now stretched to 19 straight. Most of those came under Briles' predecessor, Guy Morriss, but this was supposed to be the year when things changed in Waco. Things might still change, but losing to the Huskies scuttles much of the opening momentum Baylor gained from winning at Wake Forest.

Putting Out An APB For …

… A pair of former SEC coaches gone obscure, Hal Mumme (38) and Joe Lee Dunn (39). The Dash found the former offensive gimmick master at Kentucky and the former defensive gimmick master at Mississippi and Mississippi State at McMurry (Texas) University -- where they got their clocks cleaned on Saturday by Mississippi College. Mississippi College walloped winless McMurry 61-14, scoring three unanswered touchdowns to open the game and leading 31-7 at halftime. And so two cocky guys who always thought they were too smart to play it by the book are now 0-3 in Division III.

Point After

When hungry and thirsty in Gainesville, Fla., The Dash recommends a visit to Ballyhoo Grill for some pretty fair sushi. Naturally, you'll want to try the Tim Teroll (40), named after You Know Who. Warning: Eating the Teroll does not transform you into Superman. After that, hit the reliably strong Gainesville Ale House for a Sierra Nevada and all the TV sports you need.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.